Taking a closer look

New community group hopes to settle the stalemate between CUSD and unions

Local engineer Rory Rottschalk is part of a new community group whose members are looking into claims of both Chico Unified and the district’s unions.

Local engineer Rory Rottschalk is part of a new community group whose members are looking into claims of both Chico Unified and the district’s unions.

Photo By Leslie Layton

District dilemmas:
Leslie Layton is author of local bilingual news site chicoSol.org. Head there for more reporting on CUSD’s problems.

This is what gridlock looks like in Chico: A crumbling school district that says it has a $9.5-million operational deficit can’t seem to cajole its largest union into re-opening contract negotiations. A teachers union, telling its rank-and-file that Chico Unified School District has only a $2.5-million deficit, refuses to bargain and files a grievance and an unfair-labor-practice charge against the district.

Meanwhile, the CUSD board discusses grim cuts in spending that could close schools and eliminate programs at meetings that are attended by only a few members of the public.

Enter a citizens committee that hasn’t yet adopted a name or elected a president, but says it wants to help break through gridlock and involve the public in Chico Unified’s most severe financial crisis ever. Members of the group planned to introduce themselves at a special March 3 Board of Trustees meeting. Several members—builder Rory Rottschalk, attorney John Burghardt and North Valley Community Foundation CEO Alexa Valavanis—agreed to talk to the CN&R prior to the meeting.

Rottschalk, a structural engineer whose Chico company builds Los Angeles parking structures, said he became involved in the citizens group out of a belief that, ultimately, community members are the stewards of their public-school system.

“We are the stewards, and yet we have relinquished our responsibility to the district and employee groups,” Rottschalk said. “We believe the community should take responsibility for the kids, a responsibility we’ve relegated to others. We have to engage at a level deeper than just paying our taxes.”

The Chico Unified Teachers Association has fought bitterly with the district for many years, and this year—despite the severe financial crisis the district faces—has been no different. The union filed unfair-bargaining complaints against the district after the CUSD published its proposed contract revisions in the Nov. 6 “Superintendent’s Update”—Kelly Staley’s newsletter e-mailed to district employees and hundreds of community members.

The district says opening negotiations quickly is crucial in order to begin paring down the deficit and to avert the necessity of a state loan and state takeover of the district. The union, in response, says it won’t waive the usual timetable for negotiations because the district broke collective bargaining rules last fall.

In another effort at opening up new communication channels, representatives of the three unions and the district planned to give brief updates on negotiations at each board meeting beginning on March 3.

The citizens group is composed of a dozen Chico residents who had met twice and held other discussions by phone and e-mail when the CN&R went to press. Members said they would begin their work by going to board meetings and investigating claims made by both the unions and the district. Later, they plan to help with fundraising.

Rottschalk, in an interview in his north Chico office, indicated he was shocked that the district and the teachers union have such vastly different views of the amount of the deficit. “Here’s a very significant point of difference that’s going to stop the discussion right now,” Rottschalk said. “Is the deficit $2 million or $9 million?”

Rottschalk said his group will, in a nonpartisan fashion, research claims like these and publish the results of its research on a blog. He had already begun researching a claim made by Jack Metcalf, a regional representative of the classified employees union, at the Feb. 17 board meeting.

Metcalf said CUSD has made it a practice to underestimate and under-budget future revenue. So Rottschalk said he e-mailed Metcalf and asked him to further explain that claim, and he e-mailed the Butte County Office of Education, asking that office also to weigh in.

Rottschalk said Metcalf’s claim is a “huge comment.”

“If that’s the truth, it changes the whole dialogue,” Rottschalk said. “Maybe what we can do best is sort out the ‘he said, she said.’ We want to hold the district and all the participants accountable to the community.”

Rottschalk said he’s encouraged members of his group and other concerned Chico residents to act with caution. “I’m telling people, ‘Go to the board meetings,’ but not to express the first thought that crosses your mind,” Rottschalk said. “Go and act like adults—gather information and respect those who have been battling it out in the trenches. It’s very dangerous to quickly form an opinion.”

Rottschalk said he found the inspiration to get involved with CUSD’s crisis at an out-of-town meeting that he attended with Glen Toney, a Chico State graduate who is now a member of the California State University Board of Trustees.

At the meeting, Rottschalk said they learned a lot about community efforts in Fresno that saved that city’s school district from a state takeover. “We said, ‘We need to go back to Chico and talk to our friends,’ ” Rottschalk recalled.

Rottschalk and Toney contacted a dozen people representing diverse community interests. The diversity in the group, Rottschalk said, will make it difficult if not impossible to agree on specific strategies, particularly in the area of fundraising.

“We have some pretty different opinions,” Rottschalk said. “But we can come to a consensus on community values. What we’re trying to do is set a high goal of excellence in education—for the kid who doesn’t have very good parental support as well as for the kid who’s a rock star.”

Valavanis and Burghardt echoed that sentiment. “I do believe this is the biggest issue we have faced in this region,” said Valavanis. “We’re talking about the education of a generation of children. We’ve had a focus in this region on quality education, and I think that quality education is on the table right now.”

Board President Jann Reed said she hopes the group’s effort “gains traction,” spurring citizen participation on a wide scale, and she will be part of any “umbrella” group that wants to talk about excellence in education.

John Jenswold, president of the teachers union, welcomed the entrance of a citizens group. “I believe this will be a good thing,” he said. “We’ve seen what happens at the state and federal levels when no one’s watching.”

Burghardt predicts that ideological diversity in the group will be a boon to creative thinking rather than an obstacle to action.

Rottschalk said it’s more likely that gridlock can be overcome in Chico than in Washington. “We’ve lost the high values and we’re down to duking out strategy,” Rottschalk said of the country in general. “But at the level of the city of Chico, I think we can agree that education of kids is a priority.”